UALR Lab Translates Big Data Into Dollars

by Jan Cottingham  on Monday, Mar. 3, 2014 12:00 am  

Grad student Mohamed Messaoudi enters a virtual world as he interacts with the EmergiFLEX 3-D data visualization equipment at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s Emerging Analytics Center. (Photo by Russell Powell)

A reporter is zooming around downtown Little Rock, zipping past the soon-to-be-renamed Metropolitan Tower and down Spring Street toward the Arkansas River. As she prepares to swoop over the Old State House, her legs start to buckle and nausea strikes.

Her tour guide lets up on the controls, slowing the visitor’s wingless flight and letting her regain her balance.

For a novice to virtual reality, the Virtual Data Lab at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock proves the saying: Seeing is believing. The experience is as dizzying as the technology the lab is seeking to exploit.

Humans are digitizing every aspect of life, translating every thought, every endeavor into something that can be read on a computer screen. This act of translation is creating infinite bits of new information — “big data,” to use the phrase popular in the world of technology.

What’s data? The photo of your dog that you just posted to Facebook, your tweet about the lameness of the Super Bowl, every “LOL” ever texted.

But data is also inventory and sales figures at every Wal-Mart store in the world. In fact, much of the success of the world’s biggest retailer can be attributed to the innovative ways in which it started sharing this data with suppliers more than two decades ago.

The spread of computers into every realm is an opportunity for sectors other than retail to leverage lots of information — data — into ways to improve operations and increase profits. If something can be digitized, it can be quantified. If it can be quantified, it can be measured. What can be measured can be educational and predictive. And if knowledge, as another saying goes, is power, then the ability to predict the future based on past information — data — is a superpower.

Every field is affected but few more than science and business, traditionally heavy on numbers.

UALR’s $5 million Emerging Analytics Center, which opened in June, has a variety of roles. One is to help businesses and others translate the vast amounts of data made available by computer technology into a better way to do business.

“It is doing economic development in a totally different way,” said Joe Swaty, operations director of the center.

One of the center’s best tools, and certainly one of its coolest, is its new and improved Virtual Data Lab, whose EmergiFLEX equipment provides the virtual reality that allows a reporter, wearing special glasses, to virtually fly through downtown Little Rock as reproduced by Google Earth. The experience is so real that it’s disorienting.

That virtual reality, however, has many real-world uses.



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